The Poor House

This post is a continuation of my previous post on the area of lower Fredericksburg (click here). One location of interest in my previous post was the John L. Knight’s Poor House and nearby brick yard. Both the Poor House and the brick yard and kilns feature prominently as land marks in some Union official reports, letters home and personal accounts of the Battle of Fredericksburg.  As a researcher, my problem is that both the Poor House and the brick yard and kilns disappeared years ago! We have a general idea as to their location, but to understand their true place in history, it is important to locate them. The following is what I have come to understand about them.

This post begins during the American Revolutionary War. In May, 1774, among the colonies in rebellion, Virginia established a provisional government after the Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, suspended the House of Burgesses. In June, 1775, Lord Dunmore departed with his family to a British warship off shore. The colonists held a series of five Conventions between August, 1774 and July, 1776 without the royal governor to discuss and formulate a new colonial (later state) government. On the first day of the third Virginia Convention, 14 July, 1775, the colonists passed an ordinance establishing the first gun manufactory in the colony. This very act was in open defiance of English Parliamentary Law. The gun factory was to be located in Fredericksburg. The third Virginia Convention also created sixteen military districts in Virginia and called for the creation of regular regiments. The convention named Fielding Lewis and Charles Dick commissioners of the enterprise. Fielding Lewis, George Washington’s brother-in-law who lived in Fredericksburg, managed the finances for the gun factory. By 1777, the “Gunnery”, as it came to be known in post-war references, had 60 employees and was producing twenty muskets a week.  It’s most important function during the war was the repair of hundreds of muskets that had been disabled by order of Lord Dunmore before he fled. He feared  if he left the guns intact, they may fall into the hands of the revolutionaries. Finances and inflation were always a challenge to the colonies during that War of Independence. Lewis threw his own personal fortune into the effort to keep the Gunnery open. By the end of 1780, he had contributed 16,000 English pounds and was owed 7,000 English pounds. Lewis had drained his resources and his health was in serious decline. Nonetheless, he continued to sell his properties to support the Gunnery operation.

The work of repair and manufacturing of guns was overseen, for the entire time it was in existence, by Charles Day. The Gunnery was established on ten acres south of the town. The production facilities of the factory were on the higher portion of the tract.  It also included two acres (four town lots) leased from Roger Dixon’s widow. An article published in Fredericksburg’s Free-Lance Star in 2000 showed the extent of the manufacturing enterprise. Ultimately, most of these lots were incorporated into the Gunnery property by subsequent owners of the land.


This Free Lance-Star map shows the location of the ‘Gunnery’, a Revolutionary War era colonial gun factory. I superimposed the blue dash lines to assist mapping the gun factory that is highlighted in yellow.

The factory continued to operate after the war, repairing muskets badly damaged during battle. In January, 1783, Charles Dick died and the gun manufactory was soon shut down.

The state Assembly created the Fredericksburg Academy using the facilities of the Gunnery and the gun factory served as the main Academy building.  It opened its doors June, 1786 offering a classical education. In 1788 the school reported it had 60 students of which 15 were boarders unfortunately, the board of trustees always struggled with finances.


Virginia State highway sign that is located adjacent to the Walker-Grant school on Dunmore Street.

By 1799, the state Assembly gave its permission for the school trustees to award the assets to the new Charity School. The trustees of that institution sold the property in 1801. The 1793 plat accompanying the deed shows the approximate location of the principal buildings.


The 1793 Academy Plat as seen in the Fredericksburg Court Deed Book U-137 is on the left side. The blue dash lines and yellow circle around the Gunnery/Academy building are provided for clarity. The plat is superimposed on a 2016 aerial photo in the right side.

From this time forward, the 10 acre lot has been known as the “Academy Plat”, sometimes called the Gunnery. Between 1801 and 1845, there were several owners of the property. In 1845, John L. Knight purchased the Academy land. Knight was a master mason by trade. He established a brick yard with kilns on the land. He used the clay found on the land to make his bricks. In the 1860 census, he is listed as a brick maker. In that year, his brick yard was the smallest of three listed in the census. He had six employees, owned two slaves and hired two additional slaves. Most of these presumably worked making bricks and or assisted in the construction of the buildings he built with his bricks. That census also lists his having 150 cords of wood and 150 barrels of lime. The wood was used as fuel to ‘fire’ or harden his bricks, in the kiln. The lime was a constituent portion of the mortar used to construct a brick building or wall. To make the 137,000 bricks recorded in the census that year, Knight would have had to remove clay from a 70 foot x 70 foot area, one foot deep. This is roughly the size of a modern basketball court. Given that he purchased the land in 1845 and was in business until his death in 1866, a considerable area of clay soil would have been removed from his property to make bricks over that period of time.

In addition to the Academy lot, he also purchased several lots in the city for residence, rental and possibly land speculation. He added two lots just to the east of the ten acre Academy lot (lots 191 and 193) which made his land holding in this location sizeable.

In 1852, the City of Fredericksburg condemned its current Poor House as unfit. It advertised for a new location. John L. Knight entered into a contract with the city government for the Gunnery/Academy building and two acres of land as the replacement facility. This lease was for ten years beginning in 1853. At this point in time, the Gunnery was also known as the “Poor House”. Before his death in 1866, John L. Knight made a brick addition to the main building. John T. Knight, his son, heir and executor, divided the land with William Lang, whose wife Ellen was the daughter of John L. Knight. Each party received about five acres.


Mapping of the John L. Knight property with subsequent land split The base map is from the 1890 city map.

While the general lay of the land is relatively similar to what it was in December, 1862, over time there have been some alterations. We know, for example, that there was a ridge of elevated ground through which two railroads made cuts in the terrain along their routes. The Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac railroad (RF&P), which ran between Richmond and Aquia Harbor on the Potomac River, was in place during the Civil War. After the Civil War, the RF&P track was realigned and raised and its cut filled in. This improvement allowed for development of a large switching yard on this higher ground. A second railroad, the Fredericksburg and Gordonsville Railroad, was under construction during the Civil War.  It was known as the ‘unfinished railroad’ during the battle in December, 1862. Track on this line was finally placed in 1877. It’s ‘cut’ still remains today.


Extract of the 1867 Michler map of Fredericksburg. Mercer Square is highlighted in red for reference. The two railroad cuts demonstrate the elevation of the terrain in this vicinity. I superimposed the approximate location of John L. Knight’s land, his brickyard and the Gunnery/Academy/Poor House

We know that the Gunnery/Academy/Poor House building was located on the same high ground east of the RF&P tracks. Knight’s brick yard appears to have been located to the north of the Poor House building, on slightly lower land, yet still on his property. The location of his clay borrow pit had to be close at hand. It adjoined land to the north owned by another prominent brick mason, George Aler. Both men, Knight and Aler, appeared to value and use the clay found in this vicinity for bricks. I use the 1867 Michler map to demonstrate the approximate locations of the important pieces in my investigation. This map contains errors of alignment of Princess Elizabeth Street which add to the challenge of accurately pinpoint Knight’s land, the Gunnery/Academy/Poor House building and his brick yard. Its value is is the only topographical map of the terrain until the 1930’s.

The following extract of a National Park Service map depicts the land uses as they were in Fredericksburg in 1860. Note the location of the brick yard and Poor House. I added the outline showing the approximate size and location of John L. Knight’s ten acre lot.



Extract of National Park Service map of 1660 Fredericksburg. I superimpose the John L. Knight land boundary in blue. His brickyard and the Gunnery/Academy/Poor House is circled in yellow.

By the turn of the century, the land on both sides of the railroads was used as a switching yard. On Knight’s land, the brick yard disappeared and was replaced by a lumber yard, portions of which were modified with a railroad siding and a storage area for petroleum products. Later on, the City of Fredericksburg built the Walker-Grant school on the eastern half of his ten acres and the adjoining city lots he had added to his land holdings. Today, the city owns most of the land in this area. Most of the western higher section between the school and the RF&P railroad tracks is being reclaimed by trees, with a few exceptions.


2016 aerial photo with Knight’s Academy Plat highlighted in purple. White dashed lines superimposed to help locate the Gunnery/Academy/Poor House noted in yellow.

In 1975, as part of the bi-centennial activities, students from Mary Washington University and other volunteers conducted a brief controlled archeological dig on the site of the Gunnery. This was under the direction of L. Clyde Carter, a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University. According to an article in the Free Lance-Star, they uncovered a portion of the foundation for a brick building. Unfortunately no records of this dig exist at this point.

Because both the Poor House and the brick yard and kilns have disappeared, finding one of these from historical records has been challenging. Locating either one would assist me in pinpointing some of the Union units that fought on, or passed through this area of lower Fredericksburg. The brick kilns by their nature were too transitory to be located. The location of the clay pit or pits is lost in subsequent development on the land, other than lowering the height of the land. The Gunnery/Academy/Poor House was more easily identified and therefore proved useful for my purposes.


Enlargement of 2016 aerial photo with topographic lines in green. Note how John L. Knight’s Gunnery/Academy/Poor House sits on the high ground. The approximate location of the brickyard is noted in light blue.

My work on this post was substantially assisted by the ground work of the late Paula S. Felder in her book on Fielding Lewis. The general location of both the Poor House and Knight’s brick yard are noted on the National Park Service 1860 map of Fredericksburg created by NPS historian John Hennessey.

My next post will cover two Union artillery units which fought here, and an infantry unit that occupied the terrain during and after the battle of Fredericksburg.



Felder, Paula S., Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family, A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg, VA, American History Company, 1998. P 297.


Felder, Paula S., Free Lance-Star, Town and Country magazine, 22 January, 2000,,5392838&hl=en

Epps, John, Free Lance-Star, Monday October 27, 1975, page 13,,715375&hl=en

On line:

City of Fredericksburg GIS map site:

City of Fredericksburg 1890 map:

National Park Service 1860 Map of Fredericksburg:

Fredericksburg County Court Archives:

24 August, 1801. Charity School Trustees and Richard Johnston. Deed Book D, page 230-234. (Contains the 1793 plat).

31 December, 1852. John L. Knight and Mayor and Community of town of Fredericksburg. Deed Book Q, pages 297-298. (Contract between John L. Knight and Fredericksburg  for the building known as the Academy and the brick addition plus two acres from 1 January 1853 for  ten years.)

30 March, 1866. Contract between William Lang and John T. Knight. Deed Book U, page 137 (John T. Knight administrator of John L. Knight estate.)

10 February, 1914. William Lang et al, and  Wasddy & Wasddy. Deed Book 48, pages 223-227. (Land split of 5.568 acres known as the Lang or Gunnery property adjoining land of John T. Knight estate and RF&P railroad. Land and deed per 30 March, 1866, recorded in Deed Book U, page 137. Sold by Lang to the Fredericksburg Lumber Company.)

2 October, 1924. William Butzner, special commissioner of John T. Knight and Edgar Young. Deed Book 57, pages 228-229. (5.325 acres of Gunnery Spring property. This was the second part of the original ‘Academy Lot’.)


About Peter Glyer

I am retired with a lifelong interest in history, primarily the Civil War and WWII - Europe. I was an Army engineer, hence my interest in terrain. I graduated with a degree in City and Regional Planning and a Masters in International Relations.
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2 Responses to The Poor House

  1. Pingback: Corporal Edwin Morton Platts – A Boy Soldier Killed at Fredericksburg | Mysteries & Conundrums

  2. Pingback: Union Action at the Poor House | Mercer Square

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